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'Anthony' emerges from the rubble

A revamped foundry houses Robert Wilson's gospel retelling of Flaubert.

June 26, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

DUISBURG, Germany — Robert Wilson's show for this summer is his version of Gustave Flaubert's flamboyant novel "The Temptation of St. Anthony," reinterpreted through gospel music. The inspired score is by Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The cast is made up of electrifying American gospel singers. Typically, Wilson drenches the stage in brilliant color and beguiling movement. The music is hot. It is a thrilling show.

Over the next couple of months, "St. Anthony" will travel to festivals in such seductive summer destinations as Marseille, France; Siracuse, Italy; and Peralada and Santander, Spain. But the place to see it is in the space for which it was created, the blast house of an abandoned iron foundry in this unglamorous part of Germany.

Once a booming industrial center, the Ruhr Valley -- a string of small and medium-sized cities outside Dusseldorf -- developed a reputation as a rust belt when its looming iron and steel factories and gas works began closing in the 1970s. But nature gradually has returned. Junkyards have been planted over, and now the views from the autobahns reveal lush greenery in all directions.

Equally remarkable has been the transformation of the hulking industrial sites. It proved cheaper to turn them into parks and theaters than to tear them down, so several have become recreational and cultural attractions.

The region also sponsors the RuhrTriennale, an ambitious performing arts festival meant to run in three-year cycles, with the events taking place in the abandoned factories. It began last year, with the first cycle and a robust budget of about $45 million handed over to Gerard Mortier, the feisty avant-gardist who spent 10 years rejuvenating the ultra-traditional Salzburg Festival with spectacularly hip opera and theater productions by the likes of Wilson and Peter Sellars. This year, the RuhrTriennale runs from May to October, and it ranges from art rock to Messiaen's mammoth opera, "Saint Francois d'Assise."

Though out of the way, these crumbling industrial complexes, with their majestic late 19th and early 20th century architecture, make for spectacular festival sites. The Landschaftspark in the northern part of Duisburg, where "St. Anthony" is being staged, is a fabulous ruin with a nice restaurant, walking and biking trails, and wondrous nighttime illumination by the British light artist Jonathan Park.

A century ago, the composer Max Reger described the Duisburg foundry's blast house as "a wonderful symphony of whistles and horrendous hammer blows." By covering the arched windows and elegantly illuminating the walls, Wilson gives it a very different aspect. Concrete surfaces now look like marble, and the expansive interior space, under the enchanting lighting, feels like a post-apocalyptic cathedral.

Similarly, Wilson strips nearly all of the verbal excess from Flaubert's ornate text, relying upon Reagon's gospel numbers to recount the basic themes of doubt and belief. There is little attempt to re-create Anthony's wild delusions of diabolical temptations. Gone are visions of sex and violence. Gluttony and avarice are shown, but only through stylized gestures and cartoonish stage props.

There are but two central characters: Anthony (Carl Hancock Rux) -- dressed in white shirt, black trousers and suspenders -- is cool and curious. His disciple, Hilarion (Helga Davis), in an exquisite fitted white robe, carries out the work of the devil with graceful splendor. The two move in stylized gestures. Their reactions are contained, but they cannot avoid being buffeted by the sheer force of the gospel chorus.

And that chorus is special. The 14 members all come across as individuals -- young and old, large and slight -- and all have impressive, winning solos. Wilson rarely asks them to make the bizarre poses and slow movements that characterize his theater. Rather, he seems to have studied their natural movements, then enhanced them with the smoothest of choreography.

It is breathtaking to watch these singers possess the stage. Each is amazing, and there can be no question that they believe every word they sing. When they accuse Anthony of hypocrisy, their condemnation is witheringly effective. The nature of Christ is described by the oldest member of the chorus, who walks with a cane but still gracefully. "I knew the carpenter's son," he sings over and over again. "He looked just like you and me." It's the voice of history, ageless yet strong -- and utterly convincing.

This time, Wilson offers few of the memorable images that are the hallmark of his work -- although he has created plenty of them in a rapturously colorful series of drawings meant to accompany the show and currently on display in Berlin. He was clearly stopped cold by the music and, rather than provide a visual counterpoint to it, the stage action simply moves with it.

Wilson makes one miscalculation: He allows the singers two encores, which they sing under normal light in their normal way. They're good, there's no question of that, but on their own they lose the stage magic. We clap along, and suddenly the six-piece band that accompanies the show with fervor sounds loud and garish. The cathedral atmosphere is gone. Once more we are in the realm of dead machines.

There are no plans to bring this glorious "St. Anthony" to America, but when U.S. festival directors see it, I can't imagine they will be able to resist. Nor should they.

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